Behaviorism & Dog Training

Learning about the theory of Behaviorism in class has reminded me a lot about my efforts to train my dog. The theory of Behaviorism, as taken from our class lecture says, “mental events are triggered by external stimuli which leads to behaviors.” Basically this means that reinforcements can be used to encourage a behavior, and punishments can discourage a behavior. Many people have heard of the famous case study where the dogs were trained to salivate at the sound of a bell. This happened because the dogs repeatedly received food immediately after hearing a bell ring. This repetition caused the dogs to expect food once they heard the bell, whether or not food was present.

In the case of training my dog, a Newfoundland named Guinness, I reinforce behaviors with treats or praise. When she does something that I don’t want her to do, I discourage the behavior by ignoring her. While going to puppy training class, I was able to teach her regular commands with the help of an instructor, things such as ‘sit,’ stay,’ ‘come,’ ‘lay down.’ However, it wasn’t until I began teaching her tricks on my own that I noticed the correlation with the theory of behaviorism. While Guinness is very smart, she sometimes does not feel like participating and doing what I ask. This is when the reinforcement of the treats comes in handy. Whether she wants to or not, if Guinness knows I have a treat in my hand she will pay attention to me.

With a treat in one hand, I teach Guinness new tricks by saying the command and waiting for her to do what I want. Once she has done what I asked, I immediately give her a treat. For a trick like ‘shake,’ I had to begin by saying the word ‘shake’ and lifting her paw for her and shaking it, then giving her the treat. After repeating that multiple times, Guinness began to lift her paw on her own when I would say the command. For many weeks I rewarded Guinness for putting her paw in my hand when I said the word ‘shake,’ and now she has become conditioned to do it regardless of whether or not I have a treat for her. Using this method, I have also taught her how to do tricks like ‘roll’ and to ‘whisper’ when she needs to be quiet.

Since Guinness is a dog, it is obviously not the same as conditioning a human to perform certain behaviors, but it is still very similar. Many teachers and people who work with children use behaviorism to teach their children things like appropriate classroom behaviors. Anyone who has ever accepted a bribe has done something because of the reinforcement presented. Behaviorism is all around us, and across all kinds of species.

One thought on “Behaviorism & Dog Training

  1. Kate Amanda Powers

    I found your post about training your dog with the method of behaviorism extremely fascinating. I never correlated the method of behaviorism with dog training, until reading your post. I trained my dog the same exact way; first by saying the command, such as “paw”, lifting her leg, then giving her a treat! After doing this for a few days, my dog would lift her paw as soon as she saw me get a treat. She correlated the teat with lifting her paw. She eventually learn to sit, then give her paw, then lay down in response for a treat. Now, as soon as i lift the treat jar, she instantaneously sits, then gives her paw, then lays down. This is an example of behaviorism, and more specifically operant conditioning.

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